Synthetic Forests: A Possible Way To Remove CO2 From The Air
Manage episode 260081347 series 2661367
In this episode, Dr. Jennifer Wilcox, who is the James H. Manning Chaired Professor of Chemical Engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, a former Stanford Professor and acclaimed TED speaker shares her research findings on how we could remove CO2 from the air to help fight against the global climate crisis. “We have the capability to build synthetic forests that have the potential to remove some of the CO2 that is emitted into the atmosphere each year, ” Dr. Wilcox said. “Ideally, we avoid CO2 emissions to begin with, but we are not doing that at the scale required to meet our climate goals and so now we have to start pulling CO2 out of the air to avoid reaching a climate change tipping point.”
In addition to honorable awards received such as the NSF Career award and authoring the first carbon capture textbook, according to Google Scholar, Dr. Jennifer Wilcox’s work has been cited close to 7,000 times (and growing).
Tune in to get the full conversation and learn about:
- Global climate crisis
- Climate change
- Global warming
- Carbon capture
- Removing CO2 from the air
- Greenhouse gases
Dr. Jennifer Wilcox’s biography:
PhD Chemical Engineering University of Arizona 2004
MA Physical Chemistry University of Arizona 2004
BA Mathematics Wellesley College 1998
Jennifer Wilcox works on ways to test and measure methods of trace metal and carbon capture, to mitigate the effects of fossil fuels on our planet.
Jennifer Wilcox is the James H. Manning Chaired Professor of Chemical Engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Having grown up in rural Maine, she has a profound respect and appreciation of nature, which permeates her work as she focuses on minimizing negative impacts of humankind on our natural environment.
Wilcox’s research takes aim at the nexus of energy and the environment, developing both mitigation and adaptation strategies to minimize negative climate impacts associated with society’s dependence on fossil fuels. This work carefully examines the role of carbon management and opportunities therein that could assist in preventing 2° C warming by 2100. Carbon management includes a mix of technologies spanning from the direct removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to its capture from industrial, utility-scale and micro-emitter (motor vehicle) exhaust streams, followed by utilization or reliable storage of carbon dioxide on a timescale and magnitude that will have a positive impact on our current climate change crisis. Funding for her research is primarily sourced through the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy and the private sector. She has served on a number of committees including the National Academy of Sciences and the American Physical Society to assess carbon capture methods and impacts on climate. She is the author of the first textbook on carbon capture, published in March 2012.
Connect with Dr. Jennifer Wilcox:
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Jennifer Wilcox: It’s only going to get worse if we continue not to act in a way that we need to. Now we’re at a point where it’s like avoiding CO2 is just no longer enough, and now we need to also remove it from the atmosphere.
Tanya: That’s Dr. Jennifer Wilcox, the James H. Manning Chaired Professor of Chemical Engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, former Stanford professor, and acclaimed TED speaker who’s actively working to remove CO2 from the air to help fight against the global climate crisis. In her TED Talk, which has been viewed by millions, she proposes different solutions to help produce global warming in a hopes to save our beloved planet. In addition to honorable awards such as the NSF CAREER Award and authoring the first carbon capture textbook, according to Google scholar, Dr. Jennifer Wilcox’s work has been cited close to 7,000 times and growing. You were brought up in Maine, and I’m wondering if that was somehow a catalyst to you developing your love for nature and the planet.
Jennifer Wilcox: Yeah, I think it was, actually. I grew up in a very rural part of Maine, in central Maine, and we grew up in a house that was on about 22 acres of land that had a stream. A lot of the neighbors had solar and were off the grid and battery storage and things like that. We did not at my house, but I was definitely exposed to that kind of living at a young age. I always felt that appreciation for having independence in that way. Yeah, really, I think it’s about the culture that I grew up in, and in my house, my parents were very much into having a garden and growing our own food when the climate was good in the summer and things like that. We had a well on our property, so we were very aware of water, our access and the availability of it. There was a time when I remember being a kid, and we ran out of water and had to change your habits significantly when you don’t have water, running water. Definitely grew up in an environment very different than what I’ve been exposed to essentially in my adult life where everything has been available. All resources that provide us comfort are at my fingertips now. Growing up in that environment has absolutely shaped my appreciation for nature, and not to take those kind of – these kinds of things for granted.
Tanya: I wish that every kid would have that opportunity to be exposed to limitations of water and self-sufficiency with energy and such an appreciation for nature. Actually, what’s predicted to happen by 2050 is that two-thirds of the population are going to be living in cities, and so like you said, access at the fingertips – I’m in New York – is going to be more readily available than ever before. That’s where we’re trending. It’s just there’s such a loss of touch of what’s actually happening macro-wise with our planet and also why I think your work is just so important, so that was really awesome that you got to experience that. Just out of curiosity, what were you like as a child?
Jennifer Wilcox: I was always interested in science and nature. I think more so the perspective of a scientist than an engineer, even though I’m an engineer now, but when I was really young, I remember feeling a sense of boredom, even though we had – you’re playing outside all the time with a sense of boredom. I remember thinking, if I studied a lot, if I read a lot, if I – I spent time, I guess, memorizing things so that then when I had space with nothing around me I would still have something to do because I could be thinking about things. I would have enough to think about, which is just a little odd. As a kid, I really did – I remember my mom took us, my brother and I, to a bookstore and said you can pick out any book you want, which was a big treat. My brother picked out a fiction book, and I picked out a book of the human anatomy. I thought, wow, this is such a big thick book. There’s so much for me to memorize. This will take me forever.
My mom was like are you really sure? I was probably only 10 or 11. Are you really sure that that’s what you want to pick out? I was so excited. Even at a young age, I memorized all of the elements in the periodic table and also was really interested in insects and thought I wanted to be an entomologist at a young age and, yeah, just really excited about knowledge and learning. I think it goes back to – speaking before about independence, it’s more of an intellectual independence. If you gain all of this knowledge, then you don’t have to be so dependent on things around you because you have what it takes to figure things out and move forward. I always felt that that was really empowering. Knowledge was power, and so I saw that and recognized that and was just excited for that.
Tanya: That’s interesting, I mean, the fact that you had that realization, the need for independence, and the recognition of knowledge is power at such a young age. Where do you think that stemmed from?
Jennifer Wilcox: That’s a good question. My parents know this about me, and they don’t know where it came from.
Tanya: Oh, a mystery.
Jennifer Wilcox: My mom’s a social worker, and my dad’s a teacher. It wasn’t like they had the same kind of science curiosity that I did. Honestly, it’s really hard to – I will say, as a kid, I had a lot of time because my mom was a young mom. She had my brother and I under the age of 20 and so very, very young, and made a decision when I was young that she needed to go back to school for education, to get a degree to be able to get a good job and things like that. Because of that, she was working a lot and going to school a lot, and so that provided with a lot of empty space for me to just explore and read and figure things out but also recognize how important – seeing her as an example, how important it was to do the education and to get that and let that be able to instill within myself a situation that I can do that first, and then have a family later kind of thing.
Tanya: Yes, that served you very well. How did you move into chemical engineering? This is something that I was reading, and it just blew my mind. In 2004, you got your master’s in physical chemistry and a PhD in chemical engineering at the same time.
Jennifer Wilcox: Yeah, that’s right.
Tanya: How do you do that? Are you just like one of those people that has an amazing brain that can just suck everything in and retain it?
Jennifer Wilcox: No, I’m not one at all. I will say that I work very hard, and that’s what I tell my students too. I don’t have a photographic memory or anything like that, but I have a pretty strong work ethic. It started a little bit before grad school. Again, growing up in Maine, the high school that I went to didn’t offer calculus or four years of a language, and I went to undergrad ultimately at Wellesley College, which doesn’t have chemical engineering as an undergraduate major. The path was a little – it wasn’t straightforward that I took to end up getting into a graduate program in chemical engineering.
In high school, I recognized, if I wanted to go to a four-year college, I needed to have calculus, and I needed to have four years of a language. I went to the principal and just simply asked if I could teach myself calculus, and I did well and paid out of pocket for my book and for my AP exam if he would be willing to put it on the transcript if I did well enough on the AP exam. He said sure, and I had taken all the math that the high school had available to us. My last year, I worked with three other students who were also interested in going to four-year colleges, and we all worked together to teach ourselves calculus.
Tanya: My God, was that the first time that the principal or that school had ever dealt with that before?
Jennifer Wilcox: As far as I know, yes. That was calculus. Then the other piece was they offered French and Latin but only two years, but I developed a very strong friendship, still friends to this day with my Latin teacher. I asked her. I said can we just do an independent study for two years, and you can call it Latin 3 and 4? She agreed. She was very encouraging in terms of me going to a four-year college and did everything she could to help to make that a reality. We did things like translated The Aeneid and read a lot of Latin poetry.
It was a lot of fun. I mean, we had a lot of fun together. That was my four years of language, and so when I got to Wellesley, I took the entrance exam for math. I thought I wanted to be a Latin – a classics major.
Tanya: Oh, wow!
Jennifer Wilcox: I had all this background. I got to Wellesley, and I took their entrance exam for calculus. Even though I did fine on the AP exam, I felt like it wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t enough for my principal to – I think the best score you can get is a five, and I got a three, which now in retrospect was pretty darn good for teaching yourself.
Tanya: Honest to God! I mean, amazing that you even had the foresight to enroll your school and principal and other students to go on this journey. This is the first time I’ve heard anything like this. It’s amazing.
Jennifer Wilcox: All four of us went to very good schools. One of my friends went to Yale. I went to Wellesley, another one University of New Hampshire, and then the fourth one, WPI, which is where I teach today. We all ended up really doing fantastic. Wellesley had me take this entrance exam, and they said you’re testing into Calc 2. I said no, no, no. That’s not possible. I taught myself. I don’t trust that I know the material, and I want to retake Calculus 1. They wouldn’t let me. Anyway, I ended up taking Calc 2, and I ended up being a math major.
Tanya: Oh, my God.
Jennifer Wilcox: Yeah, I did pre-med in math, and I thought that’s what I wanted to do. I started a graduate program at the University of Oregon in pure math, and I was miserable. It was a really hard time for me because I’m not very good at quitting things. Something that I always try and teach my students is there’s a difference between pushing yourself and getting stronger and pushing yourself to injury, and it’s really critical to understand the difference between the two. For me, it was just I don’t mind pushing uphill. I don’t mind working hard, but not when there’s no feel good at the end. You have to get some reward along the way to keep pushing.
I didn’t see that in that field for me. I didn’t feel like I was a natural of any kind at it. I worked my butt off, and the best I could ever do was a B+. For me, I was like I need to find something that’s applicable to – I was very close to my grandparents growing up, and I wanted to be able to go visit them and talk to them about what I was doing and have them have appreciation and understanding that I was doing something that was absolutely applicable to every day and to making our future better. Then I ended up finding engineering, chemical engineering specifically. It was really a cross between the math and the chemistry that I was really good at, so almost like an applied chemistry.
Honestly, Tucson, how did that happen? I was in Oregon. I decided to quit the graduate program in math, which was, again, a really tough decision for me. It was also raining all the time, and somebody said to me, hey, move to Tucson. It’s sunny every day. That was literally the – that was the reason I moved to Tucson.
Tanya: It’s a good reason.
Jennifer Wilcox: Yeah, I did. I moved to Tucson, and I got a job waiting tables because you can always do that. It’s money right away, so it made a lot of sense. I got bored, and so then I met up with a math professor in the applied math department at the University of Arizona. I was trying to figure out doing a tutoring job or something in my spare time, and he said, look, you need to go back to graduate school. What are you doing waiting tables and tutoring? Then I said okay, and he introduced me to the chair of the graduate committee at the University of Arizona in Tucson in chemical engineering. Yeah, that’s my story of how I ended up there.
Then the way to get the two degrees at the same time was because my project that I was working on was specifically focused on understanding how mercury – how we can capture mercury from coal-fired power plants. Part of that was very – it was theoretical modeling in addition to experiments, but the theoretical modeling was all based upon quantum mechanics. I didn’t have a background in that, but I had a pretty solid background in chemistry. I decided to take every physical chemistry course offered, and by the time I was done, it ended up being a master’s degree. It was really course work master’s. I did it all so that it could help me understand my project for my PhD, and so I had that solid background. That’s how I ended up getting the master’s and the PhD in the same year.
Tanya: Wow! What was that year like for you? Were you just always heads down working?
Jennifer Wilcox: I spent four years in both the PhD and master’s program there. It was four years total combined. I mean, I work really hard and always have, and I try not to set other people by the standards by which I work. It’s just who I am, who I’ve always been. When I was in graduate school, I didn’t just go to graduate school. I did teach at a community college the entire time. I waited tables, so I continued to do that for the first year or two. I ended up buying a house while in grad school. Nobody does that.
Tanya: Wow! You have one speed, and it’s go.
Jennifer Wilcox: Yeah, I don’t do a lot of downtime. I like to sleep. I do, but I don’t need a ton. I get what I need, but then the other time I think I maximize. I don’t have a lot of efficiency losses in my day-today, I guess. I just make every minute count. I try to. It’s really just who I am, but again, I try not to expect that same level from others. We all need different things, and we all fill our cup differently. For me, that’s what worked, and it’s what drives me and gets me excited.
Yeah, I worked really hard and finished in four years, and again, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to help to mentor other students and people in this field. I did not do a post-doc. I went straight into a faculty position back in New England where I’m at now, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, yeah, and that’s where I really started my academic career there in chemical engineering.
Tanya: Wow! While you were in chemical engineering at school, did you – what was the ratio of male to female in your class?
Jennifer Wilcox: I’ll just say too I was not used to this. Of course, I was one of very few women. At Wellesley, it was an all-women’s college. I came from a place, four years at Wellesley. Certain parts were really difficult and competitive, but I loved the fact that there was only empowerment happening. I was in science, and I was in math. Honestly, there weren’t a – in my math program there, there weren’t a lot of us. I mean, I would have five, six students in my classes. We got really direct interaction with the faculty, and that was really good. In my math program, I was the only one at the University of Oregon in that program that year, so it was a shock.
Tanya: Oh, my God. I mean, how many students?
Jennifer Wilcox: In that program that year, there was probably 15 or 20. To go from all women in your classes to the only was a shock. Yeah, I don’t think that was a reason for me being unhappy. It was really the material, the lack of application that I felt and even the lack of newness associated with it. In terms of just pure math, you’re doing a lot of redundancy and proofs that have already been done before. In Arizona, I was also one of a few women in the program.
I’ll add too I’m a runner. Back when I was not a mom and balancing and juggling everything, I had more time, and I was a competitive runner. It was funny. In my work life, I was one of few women, and because I was competitive, I was often finishing in say the top five or ten in a race of women and so which meant that you look around you. You just see men. That’s what that means. It was like when my – when I would do races and running, I’d look around me. I’d just see men, and in my professional life, that’s what I see too. I guess I’ve gotten used to that.
There was one time I went to a meeting in my professional career back when I was at Stanford. There are about 50 people in the room. There was an administrative assistant who was female, and then there was me. The rest were men. I was quiet, and I am a lot of times. Unless I have something that’s different than what everybody else is saying, then I don’t – I’m not going to repeat what other people have said. I don’t do that, and I don’t speak to just be heard. I’m very careful about what I say and when I say it, but in that case, it was also – it was a meeting talking about the economics of carbon capturing. I was still new to the economics aspect at that point.
One of my mentors was there, and at the break, he said, Jen, you’re awfully quiet. I said imagine you were in a room with 49 women. He looked at me, and he thought, oh, my God. Yeah, I wouldn’t say a word.
Tanya: Yeah, that’s a really good analogy.
Jennifer Wilcox: Yeah, but it’s how it is. It’s just how it is. It’s something I think I’ve just gotten used to.
Tanya: Do you feel like you’ve had to work harder to really prove yourself or be on par with the rest of the team being that it’s all men or not really?
Jennifer Wilcox: You know what? I don’t think about it. I just am. Maybe I used to think that way, but again, I think the background of having Wellesley as a – just where I began, that never really enters my mind. I just do it.
Tanya: That’s really awesome. My day job is consulting, and I work with a lot of executives and board level, head of countries type roles. Consistently, the women in those positions – as we know, women are very few up at the top, as well as in male dominated fields. Not everybody but a lot of women felt the need to really be tough and to be tougher at some point in their career. Then once they reach an inflexion point, it’s almost like, okay, who cares? I know I can trust myself that I have the chops, and I have something to say. Then it’s all a moot issue, but there’s that period where they have to go through that I think for themselves.
Jennifer Wilcox: Yeah, I think that – okay, so there’s two perspectives that I see with that. I think there’s the perspective that I have. I am who I am, and sometimes it’s very, very strong when I need to be and maybe even abrasive. Then there is also people’s perception of me. I’m thinking mostly from my students perspective, not necessarily my colleagues and day-to-day. I’ve noticed in being an advisor to students that I’ll say something. I’ll be myself, the strong personality. It will be interpreted in a certain way of they – there was a wish that I was a little more sensitive of how I handled it, and then I think to myself, my gosh, if I was a male, I don’t think they would have a problem with how I handled that or how I said that.
Tanya: Oh, yeah, definitely not, absolutely not.
Jennifer Wilcox: Do you know what I mean?
Jennifer Wilcox: That absolutely comes up, and that drives me crazy. For a while there I was even – and my students will listen to this and laugh, but for a while, I was like, okay – I try and have heart-to-hearts with my group. Okay, let’s get together and openly communicate and discuss what’s working. What’s not working? Let’s all make changes as we need. Again, I make every minute count, right? If I’m trying to respond to an email, I don’t go on and on and on if I don’t need to. My responses are succinct. That’s because there’s a lot of responses because there’s a lot of emails, or there’s a lot of things on the to-do list. I went through a period of putting smiley faces at the end for my students, and it helped.
Tanya: It’s a happy tone. It’s short but it’s happy.
Jennifer Wilcox: Exactly, and they told me. They’re like, gosh, when you put smiley faces, we feel so much better, and I said, okay, fine, smiley faces all around.
Tanya: That’s funny.
Jennifer Wilcox: Whatever it takes for you to know that I’m not trying to be mean. There’s nothing mean here. It’s just quick, quick, quick. Let’s move on to the next thing.
Tanya: Yes, that’s great. Let’s shift a little bit into your work because this is really, really amazing, and I want to give it the attention that it really deserves. I could explain it, but I’m sure you would be so much better at it. What area of research are you focused on now in engineering?
Jennifer Wilcox: Yeah, so specifically focused on carbon capture. That could be interpreted in different ways. There’s carbon capture where we are capturing CO2 on a point source. What that means is say from a coal or a natural gas-fired power plant, or even an oil refinery, or an iron and steel plant so preventing CO2 emissions to begin with, just preventing it from entering the atmosphere. The other part that I’ve been putting a lot of energy into probably over the last ten years is something different, and that is taking the CO2 that’s been accumulating in the atmosphere back out. That also can be interpreted as carbon capture, but it’s a little different. We call it carbon dioxide removal because it’s removing CO2 from the air, and the other one is avoiding CO2 emissions to the air. They’re both required chemical engineering, chemistry-based approaches to interacting with carbon dioxide. One just happens to be extremely dilute, the air, and the other one more concentrated. That’s really where I’m focusing today on my work.
Tanya: You’ve done a lot of progress in that area, and actually, you have an amazing TED Talk that talks about a proposed – it almost looks like a wall, a huge wall. You call it the direct air capture contactor, right?
Jennifer Wilcox: Mm-hmm.
Tanya: Does that thing actually exist? It’s 20 meters wide. It’s like this big wall with circles, seemingly circles in it.
Jennifer Wilcox: The technology to do this exists today. That image is theoretical because that’s on a scale that we haven’t achieved yet.
Tanya: I see, okay. For those of you that have not seen the Ted Talk, which I highly, highly, highly recommend you do, Jennifer was speaking about creating this – it’s like a synthetic forest that essentially would go and clean the air, the CO2 from the air that’s already out there so, essentially, cleaning up the damage that we’ve already caused in the air.
Jennifer Wilcox: That’s right.
Tanya: Has that been really the focus of the last ten years of your research?
Jennifer Wilcox: Here’s the thing. It is probably about a little over ten years ago I looked at this approach of using chemicals to take CO2 out of the air. I thought, well, why would we ever do that? Why the heck would we ever do that? I mean, I also – as you know, I’ve taken a lot of courses in physical chemistry. I understand thermodynamics pretty well at this point, and a coal-fired power plant is 300 times more concentrated in CO2 in the exhaust stream than the air. We have a coal problem. We have even a natural gas and oil problem. We have a fossil fuel addiction. How about we deal with the addiction first because it’s just easier and cheaper? I was very skeptical of doing direct air capture a decade ago. Now, the point is, a decade later, oh, look, we have these goals for climate, preventing 2˚ C by 2100 or 1.5˚ C by 2100.
Tanya: Just for those who don’t understand what that means is, basically, we’re trying to prevent the global temperature averages to rise 2˚ Celsius. Is that right?
Jennifer Wilcox: Yeah, we’re trying to prevent greater than 2˚ C warming global average, exactly right.
Tanya: That would be a tipping point, so to speak.
Jennifer Wilcox: That’s exactly right, yeah.
Tanya: Where are we at now?
Jennifer Wilcox: I’m not exactly sure exact numbers of how much warming compared to preindustrial levels. The issue too is that a lot of the damage is already done, and it’s not reversible. We can’t bring ice back. We can’t bring endangered species back. We can’t reverse storms and the damage that that has had in terms of the infrastructure of ports and things, and it’s only going to get worse if we continue not to act in a way that we need to. Now we’re at a point where it’s like avoiding CO2 is just no longer enough, and now we need to also remove it from the atmosphere. There’s a lot of good work in doing this, but it’s currently at a pretty small scale.
The point too is it’s like some folks will say but wait a minute. If we focus on negative emissions or direct air capture, aren’t we taking the attention away from avoiding CO2 to begin with? To me, it’s like we need to do everything. We no longer have an option of one or the other. The new portfolio is both and all of the above. It’s like I don’t want to talk about moral hazards and distractions. I think that’s the distraction is the discussion of this or that. That discussion just is slowing us down. We need to do all of the above, absolutely everything, and we’ll be lucky if that still will be enough.
Tanya: Yeah, I like your approach. What we hear a lot is reduce carbon footprint, reduce emissions, but we don’t hear a lot about cleaning up what we’ve already done. It sounds simple when we talk about it but actually quite complicated. How does that even happen? How can you do that?
Jennifer Wilcox: Also, I’ll just say there’s two definitions here. There’s carbon dioxide removal, which is really just the act of pulling that CO2 back out of the air. Then there’s also something called negative emissions and negative emissions technologies. What that would mean is you pull CO2 out of the air, but if you put that CO2 that you got from the air into a product like fuel and that fuel is burned and the CO2 goes back into the air, or if you put the CO2 from the air into a carbonated beverage and you depressurize – you open the beverage, or you drink it. Eventually, the CO2 goes back in the air is the point, and that’s not negative. All you’ve done is left the CO2 pretty much neutral in the air, right?
You took it out, but you put it back. It’s important to think you’re not just taking it out. You’re not just doing CDR or carbon dioxide removal. You want to remove it permanently. You want to take it out of the air, and you don’t want it to go back ever, right? In order for that process to be permanent, that removal process, that’s the first stage is just understanding that is huge. You got to take it out and not let it go back.
The question then becomes, okay, well, what do you do with it? Oh, by the way, it’s like gigatons. It’s a lot of CO2. What you can do with it is you can – you need to be able to – if you are storing it into something, that something that stores CO2 needs to store it on the order of 1,000 years in order to positively impact climate, and so you can store it in the subsurface in the earth, which is called geologic storage. Today, where oil and gas comes from is from rocks that have pore space in which the oil and gas have been stored for millions of years, and we can put that CO2 back into the rocks from which the fossil fuel came to begin with. That’s one method. There are also formations in the earth that may not have originally stored oil and gas, but they’re porous. They have good trapping mechanisms, and so there’s other kinds of formations that you can use to geologically store CO2 on a time scale that would impact climate in a positive way.
Tanya: That would be 1,000 years, right? It has to be trapped under the ground, under that pressure 1,000 years. Then what happens to that CO2 that’s over time…
Jennifer Wilcox: Ultimately, what happens is the CO2 has different stages of permanent storage that it undergoes, so initially, it might interact with water and dissolve somewhat because it’s in what’s called a super critical phase, which just means, as you said, you’re deep in the earth, like say below 300 meters. It’s at the right pressures and temperatures so that it’s in this form such that it can mix with water and dissolve. Then, ultimately, what you would like it to do is react with the minerals in the earth, in the rock, so that it will form – it will mineralize over time and be permanently sequestered. In fact, there’s a lot of effort that’s being done, which isn’t necessarily my area of expertise, but I know about it, which is monitoring and understanding how the CO2 might move in the subsurface and looking at any kind of leakage or movement and migration of the CO2. That’s a really important aspect of any project is to be able to monitor that. There’s been a lot of projects where CO2 sequestration has been done, like hundreds of projects globally. If the formations are pretty well characterized ahead of time, then there’s a lot of – there’s safety associated with putting the CO2 in the earth and very, very low probabilities associated with any leakage back out. This is very well-known science.
Part of it is because, look, the oil and gas has been stored for millions of years. CO2 storage is not that different from storing oil and gas in the subsurface. The biggest hurdle behind that really is the public perception of storing something in the earth. We do it with natural gas all the time. I think it’s just going to be a matter of deploying more projects, doing more monitoring, more understanding, and more teaching and communicating the science and the safety of the process to the general public. I think all that needs to happen. In fact, this is the cheapest part of any project. The most expensive part is capturing the CO2 to begin with. That’s really the limiting aspect.
Going back of how do you actually do it, that piece is important. You’ll never be able to get negative. You’ll never even be able to do conventional, what I call conventional, which is the point source capture from coal and natural gas-fired power plants, without this thing figured out, without really having the acceptance of being okay with putting CO2 in the earth. We need to be okay with that.
Tanya: Is this something that’s happening now?
Jennifer Wilcox: Absolutely, yeah.
Tanya: Okay, and it’s accepted, or it’s still controversial?
Jennifer Wilcox: Absolutely accepted. What we do today is – in fact, there’s a lot of activity surrounding what’s called CO2, using CO2 for enhanced oil recovery, and so this is really something that’s popular in the United States, in Texas, in New Mexico, in Arizona, in Colorado. A lot of the oil that’s recovered is done so by using CO2 as a mechanism to enhance the recovery of oil that would otherwise be left in the earth because it’s too difficult to get out. By injecting the carbon dioxide into the oil at the temperature and pressure conditions of the oil in the subsurface, you change the properties of the oil essentially, and it’s easier to recover.
The CO2 that’s used for that is ultimately stored in the earth. We bring it back up, but only to recycle it over and over again. With every cycle by which oil is taken out of the earth, some CO2 is lost to the earth, and in the end, that CO2 is permanently stored in the earth. This has been going on for decades we’ve done this. Why is that so accepted (maybe because the oil industry drives that)? I don’t know.
Jennifer Wilcox: That’s more a philosophical discussion. I’m really bad at those. The truth is is we know how to do it. We’ve been doing it with EOR for decades. Now it’s not just – it’s not coupled to oil recovery necessarily. It’s specifically being okay with just purely injecting CO2 in the earth for the purpose of getting rid of that CO2, and there’s no economic incentive to do that today, at least not great enough.
Tanya: Yeah, that’s problem number one. If there would be economic incentive, people would really move, but let me just add a little bit more context here. This was interesting. On your TED Talk, you proposed this huge machine, this direct air capture contactor, and the synthetic force that it would essentially clean up the air to the degree of approximately 5% of CO2 that the US emits per year. That’s something. Why do you think that – if we were to actually build this machine, why do you think that 5% is going in the right direction?
Jennifer Wilcox: Yeah, so I’m going to back up a little bit. That 5% was based upon a lot of assumptions. I started that with imagine if we were to find climate as important – the US in particular, if we were to say I’m going to – as federal government, I’m going to make an investment on the order of what was made for the Apollo program. That dollar amount that was invested in order to get us to the Moon first and back to Earth, the dollar amount, the percentage of GDP that was invested at that time, if we were to take that same amount today, relative to today’s GDP, if we were to invest that same percentage not just in DAC but in negative emissions in general – we haven’t really talked about what the other options are. Direct air capture of chemicals is one of many options. I said, okay, because DAC is really just one of several other options in a portfolio, imagine that 20% of that investment went towards direct air capture.
I took a certain dollar amount of maybe what the federal government would be willing to invest if we found this as important, climate that is, as the Apollo program was back in the 60s, if we were willing to do that same equivalent investment and DAC being just one of several technologies to invest in, so say 20% of that original investment went to DAC projects. Then what I said is, okay, well, we know what the cost is of direct air capture today. There’s a company called Climeworks. They’re based out of Switzerland. They have roughly a dozen or so commercial operating direct air capture plants globally, and they openly say that it costs about $600 a ton today to capture CO2 from air. They also say but we have a vision over the next 5 to 10 years where we think we can get the costs down to $200 a ton, and that’s maybe over the next 5 or 10 years.
What I said in the TED Talk was let’s suppose that we could do better than that. Let’s say that we could get the cost down to $100 a ton. In my group, we’re actually trying to do this little side experiment. Can we come up with what we might think a theoretical minimum might be to direct air capture? That’s a separate story. We said suppose you could get it down to $100 a ton, and then you use that number, again, a percentage of GDP, to say what the federal government might be willing to invest if we had the relative importance today of climate as we did with the Apollo program, like a moonshot kind of thing.
We do that. That would equate to if we built – and by the way, it’s not one direct air capture plan. It’s a bunch of them. It’s thousands. We’d have to build thousands of these things, and it would add up to only 5% of the US emissions today. In my TED Talk I said, well, that doesn’t sound like much, but in fact, it is significant. Of course, I’m arguing we need to pull it back out of the atmosphere, but there’s also other things.
There’s going to be sectors that are very difficult to avoid; sectors like the transportation sector. Even if we were to electrify transportation, is it going to be broad reaching to long haul trucking, which is 25% of transportation emissions? How is it going to translate to aviation? How is it going to translate to shipping? There’s aspect of the – and oh, by the way, not everybody wants to drive around in an electric vehicle. Somebody’s going to still want to have a hummer, and it’s like, in America, are we going to say they can’t have it? I doubt it. Oh, by the way, even if you were to tax somebody or say it’s really expensive to drive a hummer, well, who cares? The people that want to drive them are going to do it. Who cares, regardless? There’s just aspects of the transportation sector that are very, very, very difficult to avoid.
There’s also aspects of the industrial sector that are difficult to avoid like when we make cement, when we make iron, when we make glass. All of these things involve a process by which CO2 is chemically produced in a reaction rather than from stationary combustion. It’s like controlling those emissions is very difficult today. That 5%, I said, yeah, it doesn’t sound like a lot, but in fact, it could help us in offsetting the emissions associated with these sectors that are very, very, very difficult to decarbonize today. That’s another role that negative emissions could play. Not just taking CO2 back out of the air but helping to offset those emissions that are just really, really tricky to avoid today.
Tanya: Yeah, I would just love to see our federal government recognize the importance of funding climate change stabilization programs or clean ups, but actually, we’ve seen very much the reverse happen, sadly, including getting out of the Paris accord and shutting down other special climate task force within the Navy and on it goes. I know that part of your funding comes from government institutions. Has your ability to research this technology and really experiment been impacted with the current climate of our government?
Jennifer Wilcox: One thing I’ll say on a positive, we do have – there is a federal tax credit that exists today that was passed under the Trump administration where, if you are a utility and you emit on the order of 500 kilotons of CO2 per year and you use the CO2 for EOR, or you carry out geologic storage of…
Tanya: EOR is what?
Jennifer Wilcox: Enhanced oil recovery, yeah. You can either use it for enhancing oil recovery, or you permanently sequester it in the earth, in geologic formations. The tax credit can be up to $35 to $50 per ton respectively for each of those end uses of the CO2 if it’s a utility. The question is and this is something we work on in my group is is $50 a ton the right number and which percentage of those – of the power sector, what percentage is it really going to impact? That’s something that we’re working on in a couple of studies that we’re doing in my group. The fact is is it’s started, so we have that federal tax credit. Whether or not we can keep it going, I don’t know. It’s another question. I hope so.
The other piece that I’ll say is promising is that – I was co-author on National Academy of Sciences study that came out in January 2019, and the charge of that group – there’s probably, I don’t know, 12, 15 of us as co-authors where we look at all negative emissions technologies. Not just direct air capture but other as well. In that, what we did is we established a research agenda. We tried to say, hey, if – what are the technologies available that can do this today under $100 a ton thinking that that’s a pretty good number, under $100 a ton? We outlined all of the technologies that exist today that we could do for under $100 a ton. We said, okay, well, we’ve got these technologies. We can do it. They’re affordable. We need to start doing it today at say 10 gigatons of CO2 removal per year up to mid-century in order for this to significantly impact climate, meet our climate goals so just like we had targets ten years ago of avoiding CO2 by fuel switching, by increasing energy efficiency by switching to renewables, but the fact is is we’re still along that business as usual trajectory and, in some cases, worse.
We can outline in our Academy of Sciences study of what can be achievable today, but whether or not we’re really going to do it is a whole other matter. The point is is that there are other things like direct air capture more expensive than $100 a ton. Our point was like, okay, so the research agenda should be deploying more of these direct air capture plants. Climeworks has a bunch across the globe, but the scale is too small. We need more. We need a lot more. Maybe as we build and we learn, we can get the costs down by learning, by doing, by learning by experience, and so if we can get the costs down, then that will help us to deploy more. That’s the idea.
The good news is is that I’ve been invited out to DC several times now. I’ve had the opportunity to meet with the staff of one of the senators for the state of Massachusetts and also one of our representatives who are very interested in negative emissions. In one of those meetings, somebody actually had a hardcopy of the Academy of Sciences report. In fact, it was cited in the recent energy and water bill that was passed through Congress and specifically saying that there are going to be dollars that will go into the Department of Energy’s budget specifically for these kinds of projects. I mean, before I started on the Academy of Sciences committee to participate in this effort, I did ask the question what impact is this going to have? I was hopeful, and I was really excited. To me, that is a win, getting it into the bill, right?
Now, it’s like what you said. I just hope to see the actual action. I hope to see the – not just the solicitations for proposals, but I hope to see the funding. I want to see the awards take place. Yeah, so that was good news.
Tanya: Yes, everything comes back to incentives, ultimately. First of all, the fact that your findings and agenda and all of your research has made it onto the bill, that’s amazing. That’s a great start. The other piece of this is we need to get the big players that are contributing all the CO2 into the atmosphere to participate, and so you said something interesting, which is there are tax incentives. I think it was they get some portion of their – some money back per whatever they put out. How is that again? They get a refund on whatever they reduce.
Jennifer Wilcox: Yeah, it’s a federal tax credit. It’s a per ton basis.
Tanya: Okay, got it.
Jennifer Wilcox: There are qualifying limits. If you’re a power utility like a coal or natural gas-fired power plant, you have to be able to capture on the order of 500 kilotons of CO2 per year. In the work that we do in my group is we try and outline those opportunities. What does that number mean? How many power plants are of that size? It turns out there’s a lot of them. Then the other question is is how much does it truly cost using today’s technologies to separate the CO2 from the exhaust stream, to compress it so that it can be easily transported and in high purity form, and then to actually do the geologic storage, the injection? We look at the total cost from the entryway to the final storage piece. Is $50 per ton enough?
Tanya: Yes, is it?
Jennifer Wilcox: It’s a little short. It’s definitely not enough, but hey, it’s a start. Now, the other thing I’ll say is we talked about CO2 for enhanced oil recovery. That’s up to $35 per ton. Okay, that’s not enough either, but since you have operators doing the enhanced oil recovery that are willing to pay for the CO2 today, you can imagine that, if you’re getting $35 as a tax credit from the federal government to do EOR with it and the operator may be willing to pay you something too depending on – it really depends on what the price of oil is how much they’re willing to pay. Maybe those two things collectively could be enough, but then there’s a community that doesn’t like that. It’s like, okay, well, now we’re enabling the production of more oil. It’s tricky. That’s a tricky one.
I will say there is two companies, Occidental and Chevron, who are openly supporting a direct air capture company called Carbon Engineering. They’re out of British Columbia, and they’re building a direct air capture plant or at least starting the concept of doing that in Texas today for enhanced oil recovery. The fact that you have a company like Occidental signing on to something like that, to me, it goes back to what you’re saying. They have to be willing to participate. Guess what? These guys are. They’re stepping up to the plate, and they’re funding the building of this plant in Texas. They will ultimately have demonstration scale opportunity to do CO2 enhanced oil recovery using CO2 from the air, and that’s a lot better than the way that it is being done today because 80% or so of the CO2 for enhanced oil recovery today is actually taken from the earth. It’s naturally stored CO2 in the earth.
Just like oil and gas has been stored for millions of years, there are reservoirs of CO2 in the earth, and it’s been exploited. It drives me crazy. It’s like really? We have plenty of anthropogenic, human CO2 that we could be using. First step is stop using natural CO2. Next step could be using anthropogenic CO2, but of course, using CO2 from the air would be best of all. It goes back to just being real. Would I love us tomorrow to switch all to renewables and not have any dependence on fossil fuels, absolutely, but can we guarantee that everybody globally can do that? It’s not real to imagine that we do that overnight. There’s going to be a transition period. There’s going to be dependence that we have on liquid fuels to some extent, and so to me, the steps like something that Occidental’s taking is really great, and that’s the kind of progress we want to see.
The other thing is Chevron’s involvement is because they’re very interested in looking at an alternative way for liquid fuels, so using carbon dioxide with hydrogen and using catalysis to do the chemistry to produce hydrocarbon fuels based upon CO2 and hydrogen as a feedstock. That would be an alternative process to recover oil from the earth. You’re synthetically making it in this case. Their release of funding, that work is really just happened in this past year. I think that’s good news.
Tanya: What do you think – why now? What do you think is the motivation for the timing?
Jennifer Wilcox: Twofold, I think. There’s the low carbon fuel standard that California is offering. Then there’s also this federal tax credit, 45Q. Both of those incentives, I think there might be an economic path today for a company to do CO2 with enhanced oil recovery, but we will see. We’ll see. That’s the reason I think are those two things.
Tanya: How can anybody listening or the pubic really get behind your initiatives and the air carbon capture research projects to support it?
Jennifer Wilcox: I think, if we have listeners that are interested in supporting it, the best thing they can do is find jobs in these fields. Find jobs that have to do – we spend a lot of our day doing what my 5-year-old daughter calls just work, right? I don’t call my job work, although some days, of course, it feels that way. For the most part, I enjoy what I do, and part of it is because of the application of my work. I know that I’m doing everything I can to make it so that my daughter and her grandchildren and her children have the same access to nature that I have had in my whole life. When I give talks and young people are asking me what can I do, I say, well, if you want to go into a PhD, I’ve got room in my group. I’ll take you. Otherwise, it’s like if you’re not happy in your “job,” let’s take some time to reflect and figure it out if you’re interested in being part of the solution.
The other piece is I really think – I firmly believe in our day-to-day choices that we make on just how we choose to live. I really try hard to walk the talk. In my academic career that started back in 2004, in every home I’ve lived in, if it didn’t have solar, I went through the effort of putting solar. I’ve done it three times now. Getting a little more sophisticated every time. I’m raising my daughter with a garden so that she understands what sustainability means. Believe it or not, we have two goats. We have a pig. We have ducks.
Tanya: Oh, wow!
Jennifer Wilcox: We do.
Tanya: That’s awesome.
Jennifer Wilcox: Yeah, it’s exciting, actually. I just feel like we need to be a role models, and I can’t imagine putting everything I do into this work without knowing that I’m making my choices for my day-to-day consistent with that vision.
Tanya: Yes, for the people that live in cities, or don’t have access to a garden or being around animals, or even putting solar on their apartment complex building, what choices can we make, we as in I live in the city? What choices can we make that would really contribute to just reducing this train wreck that we’re heading towards?
Jennifer Wilcox: I know. I mean, there are little things that one could say, oh, well, I’m not going to do that because it’s just – I’m just one person. It’s not going to make a difference, and I disagree. I think we’ve got a global population here, and it’s like one little thing times a big number gets you a big number in the end and small, small things. Changing your lightbulbs to LED make a huge impact on your own energy efficiency, and we’ve done that. Again, it’s a lot of lightbulbs, and we’ve done it now in two homes. We’re serious about it.
Then we have Nest thermostats in our house too. They’re easy enough. I mean, my husband, he’s an ER doctor, but he’s also very handy. Still, we installed them ourselves, the Nest thermostat, so that things turn off when they’re not needed. It’s funny because my air conditioning just turned off just now as I say that. The other things are too. Not using plastic bags. Not using the bags at the grocery store can make an impact on your carbon footprint and choosing cloth bags every day and an electric car but depending on where you live. If you live in Wyoming, you have a very large carbon footprint for electricity because of coal, same with Colorado.
With electric car, you do have to be careful. I know too it’s like what do you do if you live in an apartment, and you don’t have access to plugging your car in overnight? Again, we go back to we spend a lot of time at work, and there’s a lot of places that are talking about central plug-in access for the work hours and looking at those kinds of opportunities. Can you drive part way, walk a little more than normal, or ride a bike the rest of the way if your central plug-in access is further than a walk? I mean, really just trying to make those day-to-day choices, these types of things, I mean, in terms of the impact, even using cloth bags and the light changing, even at Christmastime. We all want to have a Christmas tree. The decision to buy a living a tree and planting it somewhere afterwards is better than buying – even that or even having an artificial tree or something like that. I mean, these are small decisions, but they make an impact. If we all get an awareness and make these decisions, they collectively would add up to something quite significant.
Tanya: I think people are starting to understand that you don’t wait for somebody else or a group of people to do it. It’s like you said. If one person does it and multiple people do it, that, in aggregate, it actually makes a difference. I love those nuggets of things that people can do to really do their part and also if they want to do a career switch or completely 360.
Jennifer Wilcox: [01:02:39].
Tanya: Yeah, they could go contribute to coming up with a really, really brilliant solution.
Jennifer Wilcox: Go back to school. Get your PhD. I’ll take you, exactly.
Tanya: That’s amazing. Jennifer, thank you so very much for being on the show. You were amazing and your knowledge in this field is so incredible. Wow! I just want to thank you for actually putting in the work to help not only your children, my children and the gens to come and even our gen. That’s something that’s very, very important to me, and I know it’s important to a lot of people, so thank you.
Jennifer Wilcox: Yeah, well, thanks for having me.
Announcement: Unmessable is recorded in the heart of New York City, and a special thanks to all the team involved in producing the show. Visit tanyaprive.com/unmessable to find a transcript of this episode, and be sure to subscribe to our newsletter.